Food and life outside India’s great middle-class comfort zone
Creative cooking is out of the window as the drudgery of unsupported life in confinement takes over
This column nearly did not get written because I was running two days behind the calendar. Coronavirus-driven lockdowns and curfews are merging days and dates into a hazy, continuous today.
Yesterday and tomorrow do not matter as much. There is no Monday or Friday, there is, as someone wrote, only this day and that day. I find that writers whose copies I edit, even those ordinarily given to punctuality, have slipped. When I ask them about the delay, they invariably say, oh you know, I was cooking or cleaning.
The lockdown has left middle-class Indians unprepared for life unsupported. We were a people always on the go but our ambitions and energy were enabled by a vast, quiet army of domestic workers. We here in sylvan Richards Town, Bengaluru, are no exception. We may love the clear air—Bengaluru’s air last week was cleaner than Singapore’s—the extra-clear birdsong and the joys of cycling or walking on streets strewn with flowers not crushed by cars, trucks and buses, but, really, most of our attention is focused inwards.
While I used to take pride in saying that I cooked for the family quite often, the truth is it was nowhere near enough to be independent. We also did the dinner and breakfast dishes but there was always Ambika, the young woman who did the sweeping, the chopping and the drudgery of churning out chapatis.
Chapatis, by the way, have left our lives. We make do with packaged chapati, bread or, well, white rice. Our cooking is extensive. Breakfast is dosas or toast with omelette, fried eggs or bhurji. Once we found avocados, somewhere during week one, I think (there’s that blur again), and had guacamole. We try to cook for many days at a go, as the Americans do, but we are clearly not there yet. We find ourselves chopping and tossing and sautéing constantly, sometimes twice a day. We hope to get better.
The wife has established that my daily vegetarian, Indian cooking is dodgy and has filled that rather large hole in our meals. She has also taken to making spectacularly good salads with just cucumber, tomatoes and onions.
Cometh the moment, cometh the woman.
I thought I did a reasonable job of interpreting Palestinian- and Syrian-style vegetables and she used to concur. “Why don’t you make these more often?" she used to ask. Now, there is a grim silence because I cannot possibly make Freekeh for my parents every day. So she calls her aunt somewhere in Switzerland to make the perfect gawar ki sabzi, Sindhi-style.
In the frenzy of everyday cooking, cleaning, sweeping and dusting, there is no time for culinary exotica. So it’s down to chicken curries, fried and curry fish, which is why you will find no recipe today. My creativity appears to have either been temporarily suspended or drowned in the tumult of keeping two houses in shape. That would be my parents’ home and our own. With their domestic help gone, we have moved in with them but we slip across to our flat every afternoon to carry out basic maintenance.
My exercise routine has gone out of the window but it doesn’t really matter. Sweeping, swabbing, cleaning bathrooms, cooking and taking down the trash are enough cardio. And there’s the shopping. We have taken the ban on two- and four-wheelers seriously. We don’t want to end up like the neighbour whose car was seized by the police when he was on a shopping errand. They have eased up a bit now but we are taking no chances. I have rediscovered my cycle and rather enjoy the daily rides on deserted roads. Our neighbourhood was once open country and rolling hills. That makes for a lot of downhill glides and uphill struggles. I do not mind missing my morning run. In any case, there are police patrols out every morning, delivering short blasts of their sirens to the few morning walkers braving their attention.
I sleep better during the lockdown than before. That may have something to do with my cautious participation in the happy hour the wife has instituted every evening. She grabs a vodka, puts on some music and settles into the half-century-old cane chairs in my parents’ balcony. I may frown at the daily drink but I invariably succumb.
As numerous tragedies play out across the world and people less fortunate than us are denied the basics of life or decimated, we sit on that balcony and watch the wind rustle through the rain tree, the flame of the forest and the frangipani. It is surreal, sometimes, to enjoy that drink while secure in our quiet bubble.
It may burst, of course. The other day the roads were sealed so an ambulance could ferry someone on a neighbouring street who had tested positive. If the pandemic decides to turn its attention to us, it will be hard to stop.
On some mornings, when we do not feel like making breakfast, I trot over to the neighbouring darshini, one of Karnataka’s ubiquitous dosa-idli-kara-bath (upma) fast-food outlets. It runs with a staff of two and new physical distancing squares are marked, uselessly. There are, at most, eight or nine patrons but everyone mills around the same small counter. They pull down masks, gossip and laugh. Any of them could be a super spreader and then we would all be done. For now, I pull my mask on tighter, grab my idlis and flee.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
Twitter - @samar11